A Diverse, Well Behaved, Generation

The segment of White America that regards the country’s shifting demography with terror has a range of cultural and economic fears (well documented by journalists like Nancy LaTourneau and Ed Kilgore).  Among these anxieties is that a less white America will necessarily become a more crime-ridden America.  The latest criminal justice data on the most diverse generation of young people in the nation’s history provides a dramatic demonstration to the contrary:

The rising racially and ethnically diverse generation of adolescents is substantially more law abiding than were the older, whiter generations who are sometimes afraid of them. The pervasiveness of the change is remarkable. Over the past decade, juvenile arrests are sharply down for every class of crime the government tracks, including violent (-48%), property (-61%), drug (-47%), and weapon (-54%).

Some people might argue that declining arrests doesn’t mean less crime (on the questionable theory that if there’s one thing police hate to do, it’s arrest people of color). Skeptics should note the many other positive indicators about this generation of adolescents: They are less likely than prior generations to binge drink, become pregnant, or drop out of high school. They are, in short, “good kids”.

For those hawking apocalyptic visions of a brown tide of youthful violence and disorder, these data are the worst possible news.  But for everyone else, the explosion of lawfulness among the young is one of the most positive, underappreciated developments in years.  And it will have radiating, positive impacts for decades as avoiding the criminal justice system allows more young people to pursue their education, secure good jobs, and form healthy and happy families. Meanwhile, cities, counties, and states, can safely redirect resources from correctional facilities toward more productive investments. American diversity has never looked so good.

 

Weekend Film Recommendation: La Maschera del Demonio

When Johann Koehler and I were younger and full of energy, we devoted each October to scary movie recommendations, knocking out 4 or 5 every Halloween season. In these straitened times, dear readers, I hope you can survive on one. At least it’s a goodie, namely the 1960 film that put Mario Bava on the map: La Maschera del Demonio.

The story opens with a witch (Barbara Steele, in the role that launched her as a genre star) being burned at the stake by a mob of pious, torch wielding, medieval villagers who seem like many other things in this movie to have escaped from a 1930s Universal monster picture (which Bava visibly loves as much as anyone). In a horrific sequence, they brand her with Satan’s mark and then nail a metal mask on her face and also on that of her malevolent henchman. She of course promises that she will rise again to take vengeance. Centuries later, two men stumble into a crypt and discover an ancient stone coffin and, well, you can guess much of the plot from there (again, especially if you watched the 1930s Universal monster movies).

Bava had done uncredited directing by this point in his career, but was mainly known as a cinematographer. Here, he is officially the director, and turns in one of the most atmospheric, visually stunning entries in the horror genre. He respectfully echoes the classics but adds his own sensibility and enormous technical skill to create a landmark in the genre and in Italian cinema more generally.

The best way to recommend La Maschera del Demonio might be to simply post dozens of photos. Part of why Bava influenced so many directors was his world-class visual sense: where to put the camera, where and when to move it, and how to create images that rivet an audience. In this respect, La Maschera del Demonio recalls two earlier RBC film recommendations in the horror/thriller genre, Les Yeux Sans Visage and Vampyr. The movie is also flat out scary, with suspenseful moments where you want to look away yet also can’t not watch.

There are multiple versions of this film, for two reasons. First, some of the violence — jolting even by today’s standards — was edited out in some countries (indeed, the UK banned the film entirely). Second, it’s an Italian film, so there was no sound recording on set. The actors were likely speaking different languages, and the language for each target audience was inserted in post-production (The multiple English “dubbed” versions of the film are pretty smooth, so it appears that many of the actors were doing their lines in that language on set). Probably the best version to watch is the completely unedited Italian language version, but the next best is the only slightly edited US version that Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman released under the titles “Black Sunday” and “Mask of Satan”. You can legally watch that version legally and for free right here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sandbaggers

Britain has long managed to turn out espionage films at all points along the dimension that has escapist fare like James Bond and The Avengers at one pole and grey-shaded, unglamorous, works like Smiley’s People at the other. I can enjoy the fantasies as much as the next moviegoer, but the Brit spy films that stay with me and thereby end up as my film recommendations are all from the grimy, realistic, end of the spectrum: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Charlie Muffin, Callan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this week’s film recommendation: The Sandbaggers.

Like Callan’s “The Section” this television series focuses on a small team of agents you’ve never heard of: the “Sandbaggers”. These trouble-shooting spies are led by a former sandbagger, the dour, workaholic, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden, in a magnificently austere performance). Burnside spends as much time fighting Whitehall bureaucracy and careerism as he does his opposite numbers in The Soviet Union, a process that is complicated by his ex-wife being the daughter of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office! (Alan MacNaughtan, succeeding in a markedly different role than he played in the satisfying To Serve Them All My Days).

The cast never put a foot wrong, which is a credit to their own talents as well as that of the primary directors, Michael Ferguson and Peter Cregeen. The show was produced by Yorkshire Television, and has an unmistakably Northern English chip on its shoulder about London, HMG, and people who went to Eton, which productively accentuates the cynical viewpoint of the series.

The Sandbaggers was scripted by Ian Mackintosh, a former Naval Officer who may have been in the game himself, and who (almost too perfectly) mysteriously disappeared in 1979. Every bit of the show feels real, from the civil service backbiting and hassles (I cringe in recognition at the ongoing subplot of British secret agents having to fly in economy) to the exciting front-line missions of the sandbaggers. And as in real life, virtue often goes unrewarded, many missions fail, and death does not look pretty.

As with many modestly budgeted British television shows of this era, there is no soundtrack or incidental music, only an opening and closing theme over the credits. Luckily, they got Roy Budd (who wrote the immortal music to another former RBC film recommendation, Get Carter) to compose it. As usual, Budd hit it for six.

As a complete work, the first season is the best for overall narrative arc, especially the evolution of the relationship between Burnside and the first female sandbagger, Laura Dickens (Well-played by Diane Keen). But for a single episode that gives you the flavor of the series, I would recommend from Season 2 the nail-biting Decision by Committee.

The Sandbaggers is a 40-year old show and Yorkshire Television doesn’t exist anymore, so I don’t know if it’s still copyrighted or not. But I will channel Neil Burnside and take the risk to tell you that whatever the rules are, an agent with initiative can find almost every episode of the brilliant series on Youtube.

Weekend Book Recommendation: Tales from the Society for the Preservation of Preposterous Absurdity

If we cannot help, we may at least hinder

I have written here before of my love for books that employ a bonkers narrator to deliver absurdist humor, and I have another gem of that cut to recommend this week. A perfectly ludicrous set of adventures are related in this collection by the is-he-a-genius-or-has-he-just-gone-spare Dr. Martin Smotheringdale, President of the Society for the Preservation of Preposterous Absurdity. Smotheringdale introduces the reader to a strange society via a series of investigations into mysterious problems, which through diligent effort he usually manages to make worse.

The hilarious stories in this book are reminiscent of Douglas Adams in being suffused with high-end scientific nonsense, from quantum kittens to a clowder of Schrodinger cats to black hole spaghetti makers. This reflects the day job of the author, Professor Shane Darke, an eminent addiction researcher whose work I have cited on many occasions (including in this interview by my fellow RBCer, Harold Pollack).

Each tale include many drolleries line by line that made me laugh out loud, and the collection is greater than the sum of those parts because the comic inventions build on each other: the poor chap who has his ears reversed in the first tale, the Perpetual Irritation Machine, and the Hypercube, among other off-the-wall concoctions, return for well-timed bows in the tales that follow after the stories that introduce them to the reader. And the best story in the book — The Ghosts of Gridley Gorge — is a joke within a meta-joke that is as brilliantly constructed as anything Evelyn Waugh, Lewis Carroll, or Punch magazine, ever pulled off.

On top of all that, it’s a good buy, just five bucks on a Kindle or 10 to 15 dollars in paperback depending where you look. You can find it at many on line booksellers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

U.S. Prescription Opioid Consumption Still Leads the World

I frequently hear the claim that “doctors have just stopped prescribing opioids”. The truth is that U.S. doctors prescribe fewer opioids than they did 5 years ago, but the U.S. still dwarfs the world in its per capita prescribing even among the heaviest prescribing nations. For details, see my latest piece at The Washington Monthly.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hound of the Baskervilles has a special place in The Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story is substantially longer than the typical Holmes outing, allowing him to weave two distinct mystery tales together. It’s also remarkable for putting Watson at center stage for a significant part of the book, allowing the sidekick a turn as the protagonist. And last but not least, it has been adapted as a movie more than any other Holmes tale, beginning with a silent version made in Germany in 1914. This week I recommend one of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, namely the 1959 Hammer Films version.

The plot of the book concerns Holmes’ investigation of the ancient, wealthy, Baskerville family, and the curse of a demonic hound which has allegedly brought ruin upon them for generations. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery about how the latest Baskerville has died, protect the new heir (Sir Henry Baskerville), and also cope with a mentally ill mass murderer named Selden who has broken out of prison and roams the moors near Baskerville Hall. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but it’s a compelling mystery with more suspense and horror elements than most of Doyle’s shorter Holmes stories.

The 1959 version, playing to the studio’s strengths, puts the accent on the horror elements of the novel. Who better than Hammer to give us fog-shrouded moors and ruined abbeys in the English countryside? Hammer also wisely cast their most reliable stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in the major roles of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes is true to the book, rendering the detective as eccentric, brilliant, and not particularly warm. Lee’s performance as well as Peter Bryan’s strong script make Sir Henry a more substantial and engaging character than he is in the book. As mentioned, this particular story also needs a strong Doctor Watson, and André Morell is well up to the task. Terence Fisher, an old hand at Hammer, directs as deftly as ever.

Being a Hammer film, the 1959 version also throws in some décolletage and sex in the person of Maria Landi. Bryan’s script also changes her character’s role from what it was in the book, which may be objectionable to Holmes purists. But I found it a refreshing take, and one that gives the film a more jaundiced take on the aristocracy than did the book and other film adaptations of it.

You can watch this worthy adaptation of a beloved novel for free and legally on Dailymotion.

Some other adaptations I would recommend:

The handsomely produced 1939 version with Basil Rathbone as the great detective; the Livanov/Solomin adaptation from the utterly brilliant Soviet cycle of Holmes’ films; the little known Sy Weintraub production starring Ian Richardson; and the justly respected Granada Television version starring Jeremy Brett.

And a few to avoid: The disappointing 2002 version with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes; the yet worse Stewart Granger/William Shatner 1972 television version; and the execrable 2000 version starring the guy who played Max Headroom.

What’s the Worst Advice You’ve Ever Received?

I’m a fan of the podcast Women with Balls, on which Katy Balls interviews accomplished British women from politics, business, and the arts. It’s better than many shows of this sort because Balls takes her guests seriously as people and professionals and not just as women.

My favorite standard question on the show is “What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?”. We are often asked about the best advice we’ve gotten; Balls’ question directs attention in an unexpected direction.

It takes me back to a professional conference in Los Angeles that I attended right after earning my doctorate. I had finished my degree at a young age and I had an ever younger face in those days, so I was repeatedly mistaken for a graduate or undergraduate student (many of my female colleagues will know the feeling). Once it was revealed that I was in fact Dr. Humphreys, a very large number of older male faculty quizzed me aggressively about my current job in Palo Alto and immediately told me I was making bad career decisions. My friend Eric Mankowski, with whom I roomed at the conference and with whom I attended many convention events, told me he had never seen a person — male or female — subjected to a steadier stream of unsolicited, patronizing advice than what I endured throughout that conference. The specifics of the advice varied across giver, but the consistent theme “You will never succeed in academia unless you follow my path” was the worst advice I ever received.

What about you – what is the worst advice you ever received?

Weekend Film Recommendation: Across 110th Street

Blaxploitation films are often described as sloppily produced, overly violent, sexist, racist, and demeaning to their audiences. Those gibes definitely apply to many entries in the genre, but roses exist among the thorns, particularly when a film had a bit more budget than usual and drew on other genres in creative ways (e.g., Blacula, for which I have long had a soft spot). Accordingly, this week I am recommending a 1972 blaxpolitation-film noir blend which is usually remembered today only as a Bobby Womack song: Across 110th Street.

The plot: The long-entrenched Italian mob is struggling to maintain the upper hand over the rising African-American gangs who rule the underworld across 110th street (i.e., Harlem’s boundary). Some small-time black criminals execute — and I do mean execute — a bold robbery of both criminal organizations, netting a massive haul of cash. The big-time criminals set out for vengeance, led by an arrogant, racist, Mafioso (Anthony Franciosa). But the robbers’ leader (Paul Benjamin) is nobody’s fool, and also knows how to handle a machine gun. Meanwhile, an honest African-American police detective (Yaphet Kotto) and a much less honest old school Italian-American police captain (Anthony Quinn) spar with each other as they try to round up all three criminal gangs.

Probably the best thing about the blaxploitation genre is the opportunities it afforded African-American actors to strut their stuff. Paul Benjamin brings the emotional heart to what otherwise would have been a routine crime melodrama. He conveys the power of friendship in his scenes with his fellow thieves, and even moreso expresses quite movingly how the degrading life of being a black ex-con in America drove him to crime as his only apparent option. True to his character’s cynicism, Benjamin sadly never became a big star in white-controlled Hollywood despite his evident talent. Where Benjamin brings the passion, Yaphet Kotto radiates intelligence here, as he was always able to do even when cast in cardboard roles (e.g., the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, for which he was recruited while making this movie). Quinn as usual gives a blowy performance trying to dominate the screen, but in those same scenes you can’t stop looking at Kotto quietly thinking about what the hell he’s going to do next to crack the case.

Although many of its plot elements are straight from noir (cops being as crooked as criminals, small time crooks robbing big-time mobsters), the film retains the action-packed, violent, sensibility of the blaxploitation genre. The sadism of Franciosa’s character is hard to watch, but it’s central to the plot rather than being gratuitous: He’s such a racist that he enjoys torturing black people even to the point that his murderous black criminal allies are repulsed by him.

Across 110th Street’s modest budget shows here and there. At a few points, the plot jumps forward as if an intervening scene were missing, and there are some visible goofs (including two howlers in the first 10 minutes that I won’t ruin for you). But for the most part the unadorned sets and Naked City veteran Jack Priestly’s unvarnished cinematography are assets for a grim, gripping, story set in the rotting big apple that was 1970s New York City.

p.s. After watching this film, you will laugh very hard seeing Antonia Fargas send up his character 16 years later in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.

p.p.s. I don’t have a lot of company on this recommendation. Wikipedia summarizes contemporary critical reaction thus: Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, “It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide … By the time it is over virtually everybody has been killed—by various means, but mostly by a machine gun that makes lots of noise and splatters lots of blood and probably serves as the nearest substitute for an identifiable hero.” Variety wrote that “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Gene Siskel gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post slammed the film as “a crime melodrama at once so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” Yet I stand by my recommendation, because I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.

What Amadeus Teaches About Being Content in Academia

The 1984 movie Amadeus deservedly netted 8 Oscars for its gorgeous sets, brilliant acting, nuanced direction, and unforgettable music.  The film can also be appreciated for the lessons that Peter Shaffer’s story conveys about fame, talent, humility, and gratitude.

 The tale is told through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, above right) the court composer of Emperor Joseph II. Having risen from poverty to great musical success, Salieri is grateful for his lot in life until brash, young, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrives in Vienna (Tom Hulce, above left).  Salieri is quite talented but Mozart is a genius whose gifts dwarf all of Vienna’s many composers.  Salieri admires Mozart’s music but is consumed with envy — as well as rage at God — for the fact that he himself has never produced anything quite as beautiful.

Almost everyone who works or studies at a university will at one time or another identify with Salieri in the excruciating scene where a welcome march he has labored on all night is effortlessly transformed into a much better piece of music by Mozart.  No matter what university is your home, it will bring you into contact with people who are smarter than you, and that can be hard on one’s vanity. For example, a few years ago, a friend of mine at another university worked out a bunch of scholars in my field’s h-index, and sent me an email saying that I should be proud of how relatively high mine was.  Fifteen minutes of my own fiddling on Google Scholar revealed that I clock in slightly below the median of my regular poker game with faculty colleagues.  

This is where one of the key messages of the film becomes relevant: Salieri deserves no sympathy at all.  He had the extraordinary privilege to pursue his talent in a nurturing environment, to create and be appreciated for his creations, and to know and appreciate Mozart. All of Salieri’s emotional misery stemmed not from his objective circumstances, but from his irrational conviction that he was entitled to be a Mozart. I speak from experience when I say that letting go of that vanity can make one appreciate how lucky it is to be a Salieri.

The other aspect of the movie that is meaningful to me concerns the character I consider the hero, Baron Van Swieten (played by Jonathan Moore, above). All the other Vienna court musicians lodge ridiculous critiques of Mozart’s work (“too many notes”) because they are terrified at being passed up by the dazzling new arrival. But the Baron advocates for the talented tyro because he takes uncomplicated joy in what Mozart creates.  Many people in academia have horror stories about mentors who saw them as competitors. It’s easy for even well-established faculty to be intimidated by extraordinarily talented young students, fellows, or junior faculty. That’s why it’s vital for mentors to summon their inner Baron Von Swieten, set ego aside, and be grateful for the chance to see such magnificent birds take wing.